Harry Potter Wizards Unite: Magic and Marketing in Our Phones (Travis Prinzi)

A Guest Post from the author of Harry Potter and Imagination and long-time friend of this weblog, Travis Prinzi, about the Wizards Unite game with more than 400,000 downloads worldwide. He’s a fan of the medium and of this Wizarding World application, albeit a fan with reservations. Enjoy!

The Niantic game Harry Potter Wizards Unite (HPWU) is suddenly the talk of the Harry Potter world. It launched last Thursday in the US and UK, and it has been released to many other countries since. Hundreds of thousands of players are walking around the “real world,” looking at their phones to see the “hidden world” of Harry Potter, magically concealed from the Muggles around us. If you see someone staring at their phone and flailing it around weirdly, they’re likely playing HPWU and trying to find magic traces.

This is Niantic’s third GPS-based, secret world release. It all began with Ingress in 2013. I’ve been playing Ingress since it hit iOS in 2014, so if you’re in my area, a decent number of Ingress “portals” (which are now HPWU Inns, Greenhouses, and Fortresses) were submitted by me or friends of mine in my local Ingress community. (Join the Resistance!)

The second such game was, of course, Pokemon Go (PoGo), which was released with what seemed to be far more build-up and fanfare than HPWU. My wife and I were in Boston when PoGo was released, and crowds were gathered all over, walking through parks and staring at their phones, capturing little monsters. (I tried PoGo for a short time and got bored; Ingress is better.)

HPWU draws, however, on the deep cultural history and love of Harry Potter, and will therefore likely be every bit as popular as PoGo and may last longer as a game. Is HPWU a genuine addition to the Potterverse? Or is this marketing gone crazy?

Perhaps the answer is: A little bit of both.

The Magic of Dopamine: The part of me that is cautious about too much “screen time” recognizes that HPWU capitalizes, much like the most successful social media platforms, on the little dopamine hits produced by successes in the game. We know how technology works on our brain, drawing us into near-addiction as we seek our “likes,” our rewards, our little successes. HPWU is chock full of these, and this makes it easy to keep opening the app and playing, even while sitting at home where there are no Inns, Greenhouses, or Fortresses. The game knows how to market itself, and it certainly doesn’t let you get far without the temptation to give Niantic your Gringotts savings to level up quickly.

The Magic of Story: On the other hand, the game pulls us into the Wizarding World, not just in a visual/technical way, but physically. Our bodies simply must move around to play this game. No one can sit sedentary, clicking a controller connected to a TV screen. And as you walk around collecting potion ingredients, releasing “foundables” from chaotic spells, and battling the dark arts, you are also a participant in an unfolding story. You can choose to help the Ministry as an Auror, a Magizoologist, or a Professor (I’m a professor!), but you’re really a detective. In classic Harry Potter fashion, a mystery is unfolding as the game progresses. You get advice and guidance from Harry and Hermione, as well as some new characters. The initia, “official” story about Grim and Penelope certainly isn’t what really happened, and we’ve been trained enough by the Potter stories to far to be looking for the misdirection.

The Magic of Community: The reason I prefer Ingress to PoGo is the heavy emphasis on team play in Ingress. You really need a cohesive team with a strong local strategy to consistently win each Ingress cycle. I know PoGo has its own communities, but it’s a different feel overall than the teamwork of Ingress. HPWU is yet another type of team play, particularly as it relates to Fortresses. To try to sum this up succinctly: You can’t get through the more difficult places unless you team up with other witches and wizards. My wife and I had dinner at a location with two Inns and a Greenhouse tonight, and then we walked a nearby park with multiple Fortresses as well. We faced the dark arts together and came out stronger.

This experience is “virtual” to some extent, and the cautious part of me is staying alert to the “magic of dopamine” and too much screen time. Nevertheless, I am enjoying the experience of playing the game with Ingress friends, and the idea of walking around a magical world that is hidden under the surface of our own world is as Potter-esque as it gets.


  1. Kelly Loomis says

    I have a friend who started playing and I feared for her safety as she walked up the sidewalk of a busy street looking at her phone. I told her if I saw her in a cast the next time we’re together, I’ll know how she got hurt!!

    I spend enough time in the fictional world without playing a game like that. I do like how it incorporates the story however that we all know and love – the spells, magical creatures, locations all bring a bit of nostalgia.

  2. Travis Prinzi says

    Yes, safety is always a concern for location-based games! We try to be very careful when submitting and approving portal locations. Parks are usually the best places to play.

  3. HarrietJones says

    I’m wondering if there is an Android phone that can run Ingress and HPWU simultaneously. Any ideas?

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